What are you giving up for Lent this year?

How many times have you been asked that question already . . .

I really don't like it when folks ask me that. I'm sure it's because they assume I have something really holy to offer.

Yet I don't. I've never really fasted more than a couple of days. I am never one for long silent retreats (I just think I like talking too much). Or anything else you could name in the super holy category.

Since being serious about Lent in seminary, let me tell you my greatest hits of "giving up something for Lent":

  1. Diet Coke (because I was addicted and still am)
  2. Sugar (especially cookies because I love them a lot too)
  3. And last year a Whole 30. (It was intense. I couldn't stop talking about what food I couldn't eat!)

In the past these practices have helped me remember that I am not my cravings. What gives me comfort and life and health is more about what I eat.

But this year, I've decided that not giving up anything for Lent.

Nope. Not a thing.

Reading the gospel reading set for Ash Wednesday helped me arrive at this place: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them." (Matthew 6:1).

These were Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount. They were a conversation changer when it came to how Jesus spoke to his disciples about actions and faith.

I would sum up his message like this: if you are going to do something for the sake of doing something-- to have something "good" to talk about, don't do it.

There's no reason to have piety for the sake of piety. If an action means nothing to you, just don't do it. Full stop.

Maybe this is why Jesus would later give instructions about fasting saying, "Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting."

Or a modern paraphrase would be "Don't go out to dinner with friends and make a big show of it when you're just ordering water."

Or, "Don't announce loudly at a dinner party that you've given up chocolate for Lent."

Or "Don't bully your partner into fasting if you are."

But hear me say, I don't think that Jesus is anti-fasting. There are certainly stories after stories of the spiritual practice of prayer and fasting throughout scripture. Fasting helps us rid ourselves of distractions. Fasting helps us align our daily life with spiritual rhythms of prayer. If you feel called to fast, fast I'd think Jesus would say do it.

But don't make a big fuss of it.

For outward faith without the inward work gets you no benefit, really.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven." (Matthew 6:19)

Because here's the point of Lent, really: 40 days of spiritual preparation for the season of Easter.

Lent helps get our shoes ready for Easter. The time when we get to shout and dance and sing Alleluia all we want. The time we get to celebrate the worst endings to stories never being the end. The time when hope is born again.

That's a lot to prepare for, wouldn't you say?

So here's what I'm doing for Easter in leu of giving something up.

I'm going to stick to the spiritual journey I began at the beginning of the year during the season of Epiphany.

I'm going to remember the star word that has guided me so far in this new year: mystery.

I'm going to trust that even when my life seems OUT OF CONTROL, it's not.

Faith comes in when I believe the master Creator is orchestrating a beautiful plan I couldn't see coming, even if I tried to dream it up now. And practically what that means as far as daily discipline, I'm going to keep to myself (i.e. not making a big show of it). And do it.

What about you?

How can you find your way to what it means to live out Lent this year?

Here's three suggestions I have as you decide what to do/ not to do this season.

1.Take 30 minutes and be silent.

This could be in your car. It could mean getting up a little earlier or staying up a little bit past when your family goes to bed. Be still. And ask God to guide your desire for spiritual growth in this season. Often we're so busy that there is no stillness in our day to simply listen to the voice of the Spirit, what our calling is for now. Listen. And you'll have some clarity. You really will.

2. Have a conversation with a trust friend or partner.

Talk through what frustrates you most about your daily routines. Ask for their wisdom about how they see you thriving or living in frustration. Often times, the clarity we need for spiritual practice is right in front of us, and all we have to do is ask and wisdom will appear.

3. Connect with a faith community.

Lent is a season of the year when churches of all flavors open up opportunities for spiritual growth that don't happen any other time of the year.

Is there a prayer group you can join? A class you can participate in?

A practice you could learn more about because it's what your pastor is leading you in worship? There's nothing better than engaging in a spiritual practice in community.

Maybe what you're looking for is already right around the corner from your house. You just have to go! 

Wishing you a blessed Lenten journey in whatever way you decide to practice!

Know that as you discern what comes next for you in this holy season, God is with you.

And regardless of your piety or not, God looks at you and say, "You are my beloved child in whom I'm well-pleased."

Back by popular demand is a blog post that I wrote in February of 2007 about an experience during my first year as a full-time associate pastor. Please laugh along with me (though it wasn’t funny at the time). By means of background, Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday this year and the senior pastor of our congregation was in Hawaii celebrating his birthday (the same day as mine). So of course I wasn't bitter or anything . . 

It was 6:10 p.m. before the Ash Wednesday service began at 6:30. I was on the phone with my husband, Kevin racing back to the church for the service. In the course of our conversation, I remembered I had forgotten the most important thing. The ASHES.

Hearing the panic in my voice, Kevin offered a suggestion. He reminded me that it wouldn’t take very long to burn some more ashes. "Go outside with a metal trash can and burn some paper in it for a few minutes. I bet you can get it done before anyone gets there . . ."

While I saw the logic in this activity, Kevin’s idea sounded a little risky to me. Did I have time to find a metal trash can? And who really listens to their husband?

Instead, I thought I had a brilliant idea, better than his. Our fellowship hall had a fireplace in it. I decided I’d just burn some paper in there. No big deal, right? That's what fireplaces are for, right?

Wrong, because I forgot to open up the flue. Yes, the very important flue.

So before I knew it, smoke began to fill the fellowship hall. It was just my luck (sigh) that the smoke sensor was right beside the fireplace– so the church fire alarm began to immediately sound. That awful loud noise began to fill the walls of the church along with the smoke. And more smoke.

I quickly began to pour water on the paper burning I had begun (not thinking that I was totally defeating the point of exercises as I was soon to have soggy ashes). I thought if I could get the smoke to leave the fellowship hall, then all would be well and the fire alarm would go off.

But in a few minutes, the fire alarm did indeed go off!  Lonnie, my pastoral colleague meanwhile called the security company and told them all was well. The pastor was just burning something for a service. But, the VERY loud noise kept going! And going. And going.

The first person I saw was one of our most faithful deacons, Tom (God rest his soul!). He was out of breath. I could tell that he'd been sprinting throughout the church like a crazy person. With panic in my voice, I admitted that I was the one who had started the fire. Yet, everything was ok; the fire was out. I was glad Tom didn't yell at me. Together we got water in bowls from the kitchen and kept pouring them over the smoked filled fireplace.

And by the time that I cleaned everything up and make my way upstairs, I found that the fire department had already made its way to our church. Yes, the local fire department!

Thank goodness Lonnie was there to deal with them and the crowd of early attendees standing outside wondering what was going on. I was so embarrassed! And I locked myself my office. (Yes, not a shining moment but the true story!)

Blessed Kevin, though talked me off the Ash Wednesday smoke filled church ledge and I found my way to the service.

I began the night talking about the symbols of Lent, including the wet ashes. I told everyone the story of what had occurred earlier that evening (for the late comers who hadn't heard the noise) and a roar of laughter came from those present (If you don’t cry, you laugh, right?).

The Joel 2 lectionary passage for the day had a whole new meeting for our group that evening: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.”

For our alarm really did sound!

Kevin did treat me to a nice dinner afterwards. It was the best part of 2007's Ash Wednesday birthday.

I never have tried to burn my own ashes again, nor will I. And you all should say amen.

Back by popular demand is a blog post that I wrote in February of 2007- an experience that was my first year as a full-time pastor. Please laugh along with me (though it wasn’t funny at the time).

As a means of background, Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday this year: a day which should be a joyous celebration of life but instead I was in charge of the prayer meeting service about this occasion – a day to remember our mortality. This was troubling to begin with, but whatever. Secondly, the senior pastor of our congregation was in Hawaii celebrating his birthday (the same day as mine) during Ash Wednesday; thus, leaving me in charge of the service (totally not fair, right?).

It was 6:10 p.m. before prayer meeting/ the Ash Wednesday service began at 6:30. I was on the phone with Kevin on my way back to church. I knew I was running late and trying to get back to church as fast as I could. Yet, in the course of our conversation I remembered I had forgotten one important element for the service: the ashes!

Kevin offered a suggestion. He reminded me that it wouldn’t take very long to burn some more ashes. All I would need to do is go outside with a metal trash can and burn some paper in it for a few minutes. While I could see the logic in this activity, Kevin’s idea sounded a little risky to me. (My vision of what could happen is much like the picture to the left!) I thought I had a brilliant idea. Our fellowship hall has a fire place in it. I decided I’d just burn some paper in there. No big deal, right?

Wrong, because I forgot to open up the flue. Before I knew it, smoke began to fill the fellowship hall. It was just my luck that the smoke sensor was right beside the fireplace– so the church fire alarm began to immediately sound. That awful loud noise began to fill the walls of the church along with the smoke.

I quickly began to pour water on the paper burning I had begun (not thinking that I was in that moment totally defeating the point of exercises as I was soon to have soggy ashes). I thought if I could get the smoke to leave the fellowship hall, then all would be well and the fire alarm would go off.

In a few minutes, the fire alarm did indeed go off thanks to my fabulous pastoral colleague, Lonnie. He had just walked in the building when the alarm sounded and soon thereafter began calling the security company telling them that everything was ok as well as doing crowd control for me upstairs. But the first person I saw after the event was one of our most faithful deacons, Tom.

Tom, an older gentleman who came bursting down the stairs trying to see what was wrong. With panic in my voice, I admitted that I was the one who had started the fire. Yet, everything was ok; the fire was out. I felt bad for making Tom run through the church with such a sense of panic.

By the time that I cleaned everything up and make my way upstairs, I found that the fire department had already made its way to our church. Thank goodness Lonnie was there to deal with them– taking them to the fireplace downstairs, letting them know that all was well because by this time I had lost it. I was so embarrassed. I didn’t think I had it in me to go and lead the service. I wanted to go home and find some joy of this 27th birthday of mine.

But, I knew I was a professional and professionals must act as they must, not as they feel. By some grace, I wiped my tears and headed for the conference room to begin talking about the symbols of Lent, including the wet ashes. I told everyone the story of what had occurred earlier that evening and a roar of laughter came from those present (If you don’t cry, you laugh, right?).

Somehow the Joel 2 lectionary passage for the day had a whole new meeting for our group that evening: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.” For our alarm really did sound! What a day!

Kevin did treat me to a nice dinner afterwards. It was the best part of this crazy birthday.